Tag Archives: poor

Kings and Fiends

Martin Luther King Jr. was, and is, a symbol of hope. This day, as we’re encouraged to think of progress, we’re mired under leadership that less than a week ago used derogatory language to describe people that aren’t white enough for his liking. Those who, like King, have a dream, are under attack by a government that has pledged its allegiance to the dollar. The dollar in the hand of the white man. From the days of the prophets on the dream of a just and fair society has been the ideal. Instead we find ourselves under the ultimate party of privilege that likes to quote the Bible but which admires Pharaoh far more than Moses. They claim to see the promised land, and that land belongs only to them.

I was too young, as a seminary student, to appreciate I was walking the same halls as Dr. Martin Luther King. Sitting in the same classrooms. It had all been before my time. Because of the Bible I first took an interest in history—eager to learn how we’d come to this place. Ronald Reagan—who now amazingly seems rather benign—was making it difficult for the poor by promoting “trickle down economics.” We all saw how that worked. The modern-day Pharaohs may not wear the impressive headdress of antiquity, but they’re no less fond of owning slaves. King understood that non-violence comes with a cost. It takes time. Unlike the present administration, he understood the difference between right and wrong.

The Pharaoh in the White House makes it difficult to appreciate any progress at all. We have come to see what it means to be a nation that solely, utterly worships Mammon. The voice of the Bible is weak and shouted down by those who see no gain in it for themselves. There were surely those in Egypt who were poor but who appreciated the Pharaoh. At least he was enslaving those from somewhere else, according to Exodus. According to the Good Book it was God himself who opposed this system, but now, according to the evangelicals, God has blessed it. It is the will of God to rob the poor of their health care so that the rich can add even more to their too much. On this Martin Luther King day we struggle to find hope in such a world. The hope is there, but we have to be willing to dare to dream.

Domesticity

One of the truly disturbing aspects of religion is its tendency to become domesticated. What I mean is that it becomes so much a part of the everyday scenery that you forget it’s there. I recently read a story about priests in the Church of England who don’t want parishes in poor neighborhoods. The reason given? They don’t want their children educated among the poor. That took me back a step. As someone with more than a passing familiarity with the Episcopalians, I wasn’t surprised that they didn’t want poor parishes. Of establishment Christianity, Anglicans are on the economical high end of the scale. I knew a few future priests like that at Nashotah House. Stylish worship and excess cash go together. But not to want your children educated with the poor? Is there fear of contagion?

I grew up poor. When I visit my hometown I’m reminded that although it featured in an X-Files episode, it will never be an affluent place. The people there, as a whole, struggle financially. I didn’t know any rich people growing up (I had to become an Episcopalian for that to happen) and I don’t think anyone rich lived in our town. Education, however, was a different thing. We went to school together and we learned. Some of us, despite not attending the finer establishments, managed to move through the educational system and on to college, seminary, and graduate school. Ironically, some of us even came to teach Episcopalians in seminary. A poor boy instructing the rich. But quite apart from that, it’s impossible to read the Gospels and not notice the concern for the poor in the founder of Christianity.

Image source: Julius Ejdestam: De fattigas Sverige, Wikimedia Commons

Early Christians weren’t Episcopalians. They were actually Jewish. Although a few of them had means, this new religion appealed primarily to the poor. As one of the earlier believers in the movement is said to have said, the rich receive their reward here. More and more Christians are coming to believe that this world is the locus of receiving rewards. Heaven isn’t so much on the radar anymore. We’ve been to outer space and it’s not there. Rather than put ourselves at risk among the poor, it’s better to blend in with the establishment. We can still rail aloud that the church is important and shouldn’t be ignored. But paying customers only, please. The poor? They’re a dime a dozen. And when we come to think of people that way, religion has become domesticated.

Overlooked Scripture

In this great Trump Tower of capitalism in which we all live, I often wonder about the overlooked Bible. Fundamentalist Trump supporters certainly know how to thump it, but do they know how to read it? This thought occurred to me as I was rereading the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 recently. The narrative isn’t hidden or obscure. Here’s how it goes: the earliest Christians were communists. Literally. Peter himself was involved. After Jesus’ ascension, his followers pooled their resources and divided them up by how much each person needed. Ananias and Sapphira, a husband and wife duo, sold their property and presented the money to Peter and the collective. They held a little back, though, just in case. The result? Peter saw through the lie and they died instantly. The point was pretty clear—Christians don’t hold anything back for themselves. They live communally.

Obviously, this didn’t last very long. Let the one without a savings account cast the first stone. In fact, by half-way through Acts the holy experiment is already forgotten. Nevertheless, it was the ideal. Christians were people who took care of one another, especially the poor. By the time communist governments (which didn’t work because people are people) took hold, Christians were dead-set against them. Okay, well, they were godless—but the idea behind them was biblical. Today any form of socialism is soundly condemned by most evangelicals. Apparently they don’t read the book of Acts any more. There was no moment when this commune was castigated in Holy Writ. It simply vanishes without a whimper to be condemned as utterly evil in these latter days.

The wedding between capitalism and Christianity has proven an enduring one. Capitalism allows, indeed pretty much mandates, selfishness. It’s difficult to live in such a system and not feel entitled to more than you already have. Who ever says, “No thanks, I don’t need a raise. I have enough”? Those who attempt communal living are generally called “cults” and the suspicion is omnipresent that the leader isn’t holding (usually) himself to the same standards as the pedestrian members. The story in Acts 5, however, is even more extreme. After Ananias lies to Peter and dies on the spot, his wife Sapphira comes in just as those who buried her husband are returning. Peter baits her with a question about how much money they received for their property and when she concurs with her late husband, the undertakers have a second job for the day. This is a faith taken seriously. It was bound not to last.

Are There Not Workhouses?

dickensworkhouseAs colder days settle in I add layers and sit in our under-heated apartment and think about the lot of the poor. I don’t think billionaires really understand the plight of those who, no matter how hard they work, just can’t get ahead in a society that values class above individual welfare. I’ve noticed the increasing number of homeless on New York City streets. Many are clearly those who’ve lost jobs and can’t afford to pay the rent of even a modest apartment in the city, let alone Trump Towers. Having lost jobs myself after a lifetime of hard work, my sympathies are with the street dwellers. Ruth Richardson’s Dickens and the Workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London Poor reminded me that this is not just an American phenomenon. The book begins as kind of a detective story to locate the workhouse that Dickens features, if fictionalized, in Oliver Twist. Richardson makes a strong case that this workhouse has been found and that relics of Dickens’ under-acknowledged London residence just a few doors down from it influenced much of his first-hand knowledge of the life of the poor.

In the case of London, poor laws were put in effect to punish those who couldn’t fend for themselves. Inmates at poor houses were kept on a legally mandated starvation diet (literally) with inadequate medical care. Instead of censuring this injustice, the Church of England stood behind it. The perverted thinking was that if anyone knew how bad it was in such places they would try doubly hard not to be poor. The funny thing about living in poverty (I have some experience of this) is that it isn’t a choice. I didn’t particularly get along with my step-father. I can say, however, that he was one of the hardest working men I ever knew. Long hours spent at work, sometimes the whole night through, to support a family of six on just above minimum wage. This was his daily existence. I must’ve looked soft in his eyes.

Richardson’s book, although fascinating, is also distressing. The idea that a society thinks the most humane way to deal with those who are struggling is to punish them further, for me, defines evil. One of the characteristics of our species, according to biologists, is that humans often show extraordinary care for other creatures, often of other species. For our own, however, we feel that if you’ve “earned” something by exploiting others it is your “right” to keep it and let them suffer. This economic system is rotten to the core. We may have come a long way since Dickens’ time. We don’t have such exploitative workhouses in Manhattan. Instead, we have so many people sleeping in the streets that a walk to work has become very Dickensian indeed. Somehow I don’t see the situation improving in the next four years.

The Least of These

Despite criticisms to the contrary, the pre-Reformation church did have concerns about the average person. About the poor. In those days church offices commanded a good deal more esteem than they currently do among the populace, and being a priest was a position of power. The concern for the quotidian human—at least of the Christian variety—was demonstrated in All Souls’ Day. Although the date migrated around the calendar before settling on November 2, it came part of one of the very serious (days of obligation) annual celebrations along with All Saints’ Day, November 1. It was recognized that not everybody could be a saint, and all the faithful departed deserved a special day of commemoration. Through a complicated history this two-day celebration came to be associated with Celtic beliefs about the crossover day between worlds, samhain, giving birth to Halloween. It seems appropriate on All Souls’ Day to think about the poor.

An article in the Washington Post reports on findings that poor children, in their words, “that do everything right don’t do as well as rich kids who do everything wrong.” There are indeed deficits that attend the poor all their lives. Those of us who began in such circumstances can sometimes break through in a system that favors the upper classes, but it is rare. Good paying jobs are reserved for friends of the wealthy or to those who might pay them back in some way. The poor have little to offer beyond their souls. Our system, the so-called “free market” deals in souls. The poor are, make no mistake, chattels. Even in higher education, where we’d like to think thinkers think, positions are granted based on privilege. The loftier music and liturgy is, after all, reserved for All Saints’ Day.

dorothealangemigrantworkerschildren

Like many raised in humble circumstances, I grew up hearing about the American dream. If you work hard you can succeed. But that really depends on who you know and how much they’re willing to help out. Stats are now beginning to back up what those of us who have lived experience in the lower register already knew. Having faced it throughout my career, I know I’m not alone. Just the other day I met someone else who grew up poor who’d hit the bullet-proof ceiling carefully installed by children of privilege. Not ambitious beyond desiring the basic comforts of a job that covers the bills and allows for some reasonable amount of surplus against lean times is, it seems, more than the wealthy are willing to grant. After all, All Saints’ must come before All Souls’, for even Heaven has its hierarchies.

Underrepresented

Underrepresented groups, I am told, are eagerly sought by academic institutions. The white male establishment has begun to develop a conscience, it seems. If I appear more credulous than an academic should be, it’s because I grew up poor. While I have no doubts that the entrenched power structures need to change, in an unguarded moment I wonder about the obvious overlooked financial demographic. What of the poor? I’m told by my friends with academic posts that universities are eager to find authentic poor folk—working class people who’ve worked they’re way up. To me, as one such person, this is another academic myth. Even a “white” man can struggle. If you’re born into an uneducated, blue-collar, paycheck-to-paycheck family, getting ahead is often sublimated survival. Those who’ve had me in class may not believe that I grew up with red-neck family values. Duck Dynasty? Well, in my case it was more a case of Deer Destruction, but I lived in a small, industrial, rust-belt town on the edge of the woods. From middle school on I worked to buy my own clothes for school which, I could always tell, were bargain rack compared to other kids who’s parents struggled less. In times of stress (and they are many) I find myself slipping back toward my blue-collar days and wondering just what is wrong with privileged America.

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I don’ t pretend to have grown up in abject poverty. My wife, from a middle class family, was, however, a victim of culture shock when she first visited the house I grew up in. (I still end sentences with prepositions from time to time.) And that was after the improvements. College was my choice and was paid for by my own work since parental contributions hovered somewhere around the zero line. Along the way I learned to act like others. I even became Episcopalian and most of my “peers” had no idea I didn’t really fit in. I say all this not for pity, but because of a deep conviction that the poor are the hidden demographic. We, as a society, need people to take away our garbage and plow the snow from our streets and dig our ditches. We don’t really want them educated since, well, they would be overqualified. Disgruntled. Our institutions may say they want to hire them, but they lie. The poor make the affluent uncomfortable even as they make them comfortable.

In my campus experience (which, all told, comes to over 25 years) I always found talking to the grounds or maintenance staff more comfortable than the academic staff. I understood where they were coming from. Even now as I wonder how I’m going to afford to get the car fixed, I recall conversations around the more practical matters of life with which I grew up: how to make sure poorly insulated pipes don’t freeze up in winter. Eating venison, or coming home to find carp that a neighbor caught swimming sluggishly in the bathtub were not unknown. While I didn’t go to bed hungry, the food available made me wonder what was in front of me in some fancy restaurants in San Diego. If academe is serious about understanding the poor, they’re going to have to start listening to them. And when they form a department of red-neck studies, they’ll hire someone from an established academic family with an Ivy League degree to lead it. I’ve always been more credulous than I should be.

And Then There Were None

Whatever happened to evil? There was a time—when I was being reared in a conservative, evangelical, Republican household—that certain kinds of behavior were considered evil. And not all of them took place in the bedroom. Some of the most blatant acts of evil included using others for your own advantage, putting yourself first, and valuing things above people. Somewhere in the decades that I’ve been alive, all of that has changed—from a politician’s eye-view, anyway. Now that we’re in what’s passing for winter, some days are decidedly chilly. Seeing the homeless hunkered down in the Port Authority Bus Terminal (where there is even an organized, charitable group that tries to help them out), or sitting on subway vents to catch some of the warm air, or shivering on a street corner day after day, I wonder where the evil has gone.

In the neo-evangelical world of cheap prosperity and cheap family values, the name of Jesus gets bandied about like an over-inflated beach-ball. Many who utter his name obviously don’t read his life story. According to the Gospels, Jesus spent his adult life as a homeless wanderer who was particularly sympathetic to the poor. He doesn’t refer to them as evil, but he does have very harsh words for the privileged establishment. Such words harsh the euphoria built upon our own self-importance. As I see the homeless in the winter’s chill, it occurs to me that their lifestyle is much closer to that of Jesus than is the that of the executive who works 33 floors above them. Their demands on life are minimal. Their stares should make us uncomfortable.

And yet, look at those running for office. The amount of money they spend to make each other look bad is obscene. They try to make themselves look righteous for the Tea Party crowd, but their assets weigh them down. I shiver for the homeless. I shiver when I see the news about the ultra-wealthy bragging about who can dig up the most mud. Most of them would have no idea which end of the shovel to use. I’m afraid that having grown up in a modest setting has forever biased me against posers and average guy wannabes. I’ve had jobs that have involved shovels, sledgehammers, and hard scrubbing. The average person struggles and shivers sometimes. The average person spends some time on his or her knees and sometimes ends up on the ground. And even though the average person falls down more than our shining leaders, we never get quite so dirty. Politicians don’t sling the mud at us. To be honest, I think they don’t even see us.

The son of man has no place to lay his head